Sing Down the Moon takes place mainly in Arizona and New Mexico between 1863 and 1865. The story begins and ends in Canyon de Chelly, now a national monument. O'Dell is a careful historical novelist. In addition to giving his readers the pleasure of adventures set in another time and place, he offers a glimpse into the life and culture of Navahos in the nineteenth-century Southwest. He creates a vivid sketch of traditional Navaho life, basing his story of "the long march" on an actual historical event. In 1863 the U.S. government removed all the Navahos from the Four Comers region of the Southwest (where the borders of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico all meet) to Fort Sumner, southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Colonel Kit Carson led U.S. Cavalry troops in destroying Navaho villages and crops and killing those who resisted the three-hundred-mile walk. About ten thousand Navahos were removed; about eighty-five hundred reached Fort Sumner alive. Another fifteen hundred died during two years of exile. Sing Down the Moon captures the horror of this long march from a young Navaho woman's point of view.
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Bright Morning tells her story in a straightforward first-person account. O'Dell uses the pattern of exile and return to express his theme of the connections between loyalty and identity, and to criticize cultures that damage these connections by tearing people away from one another and from their homes. When Bright Morning is thrust into white culture, she often reflects on how it differs from her own culture, a device that allows O'Dell to unobtrusively insert many revealing details about Navaho life. The wistful but dignified tone of Bright Morning's narrative as she recalls her past life makes these details vivid. O'Dell's inclusion of such details in a fast-paced adventure story lends richness and depth to the novel and brings Bright Morning's character to life. Bright Morning's adventures generate a great deal of suspense. When great misfortune is about to befall a character, O'Dell often hints at the forthcoming event and then shifts to an idyllic description of nature just before disaster strikes. For instance, before the slavers abduct Bright Morning and Running Bird, Bright Morning lapses into a revery about the tranquil spring day: "Clouds drifted in from the north, but they were spring clouds, white as lamb's wool. In the stream that wandered across the mesa speckled trout were leaping." Then
Bright Morning's dog barks, and minutes later the girls are bound and gagged. Similarly, just as Bright Morning and Running Bird forget about the threat...
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O'Dell said that he was concerned with the way in which children grow up in American society and with the failures of different cultures to understand and appreciate one another. These concerns are apparent in Sing Down the Moon.
O'Dell shows Bright Morning growing from the girl who abandoned her sheep into the mature woman who can break the lance her husband makes for their son. Her rejection of a tradition of warfare promises a new cultural direction for her people. A feminist theme is implicit both in O'Dell's choice to make a young woman his narrator and main character, and in the direction the story takes. In traditional Navaho society, masculine interests dominate, and these interests help to provoke "the long march." Despite warnings from the U.S. government that Navaho raids against the Utes will bring reprisals, the Navaho are unable to give up warfare as a means of gaining extra food, territorial advantage, and personal honor. Though Bright Morning and other women understand how foolish such behavior is and emphasize the importance of protecting their precious, fertile canyon, the men will not listen. Rather, they insist upon the traditional way, in which women submit and avoid contradicting husbands and fathers. While women have a voice in tribal affairs, they lack the power to change the men's foolish behavior. Tall Boy's loss of the use of his arm and the couple's sufferings in exile lead to Bright Morning's assertion of a new ideal...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What does Bright Morning learn from her mistake of leaving the sheep in the snow storm?
2. Why can't Bright Morning live happily in the pleasant house where she is a servant after she is first captured?
3. What do you think of the way Tall Boy handles the men who pursue Bright Morning and her friends to regain their horses?
4. Why does the U.S. Cavalry remove the Navahos from the Canyon de Chelly area?
5. What meanings do you see in Bright Morning's taking care of the baby that dies on the way to Fort Sumner?
6. How does the forced move to Fort Sumner affect the Navaho? Think about both the physical and the spiritual changes they undergo.
7. Why does Bright Morning want to return to Canyon de Chelly from Fort Sumner?
8. What similarities do you see between Bright Morning's first and second exiles? What important differences do you see?
9. What meanings do you see in Bright Morning's breaking her son's toy spear at the end of the story?
10. In the postscript, we learn that this novel is based on actual historical events. Does this make a difference in the way you think about the novel?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Tall Boy's loss of the use of his right arm may be seen as a symbol. Review what we learn about that arm, how it is hurt, what the loss means, and what he says about the wound. Write a paper explaining how the wound functions as a symbol in the novel. What does Tall Boy learn from Bright Morning's response to his injury?
2. O'Dell has said, "I'm not interested in the Navajos particularly—they're not my favorite tribe even. They were marauders—they rode in and took the crops of other Indians, after harvest sometimes." Does his attitude towards the Navaho show in the story? Write a paper discussing the weaknesses of Navaho culture that most seem to influence how the story is told.
3. Think about the married life of Bright Morning and Tall Boy. Write a sketch of what this life would have been like had the two married as they originally planned—she wealthy in sheep and he a successful hunter and warrior. Describe and explain the most interesting similarities and contrasts between this picture and the actual situation.
4. Use an encyclopedia and other sources to learn about the culture or history of the Navaho. Write a report about how O'Dell incorporates this information into his novel. Note any new facts that surprise you.
5. Use an encyclopedia and other sources to learn about the Navaho's long march to Fort Sumner in 1864. Explain the differences between the historical account and the one presented in Sing...
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O'Dell did not write any other books about the characters in Sing Down the Moon, but The King's Fifth takes place in the same region. This novel, which is about the sixteenth-century Spanish search for gold, includes Native American characters. Several other O'Dell novels are set in the Southwest, Mexico, and Central America, and concern interactions between Native Americans and Europeans.
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For Further Reference
Estes, Glenn E. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 52. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains a discussion of O'Dell's career with detailed descriptions and reviews of his young adult books.
Townsend, John Rowe. A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. New York: Lippincott, 1971. Includes a brief overview of O'Dell's early novels and an excerpt from an essay in which he discusses his aims as a writer for young people.
Wintle, Justin, and Emma Fisher. The Pied Pipers: Interviews with the Influential. Creators of Children's Literature. New York: Paddington, 1974. Contains an interview with O'Dell about Sing Down the Moon and his other novels, his reasons...
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